V.V.W. Fretwell (19-21)
Recently, a researcher digging into the history of Shanghai Rugby Football Club in the1920s and 1930s, compiled the following account of the life of Victor Vause Winser Fretwell (19-21). A distant relative of Victor Fretwell’s, Louise Pether, in Australia kindly sent us the article which is copyrighted to Simon Drakeford. Victor Fretwell died in 1975 in Australia as recorded in The OP Record 1917 – 2016.
“In common with many men from his generation, Victor Vause Winser Fretwell (19-21) led an extraordinary life. A life which, as far as possible, is discussed below. There are gaps in its timeline and many unanswered questions but what follows is yet another remarkable story involving a Shanghai rugby player from the 1920s and 1930s.
Fretwell was born to parents William and Flora on 5 April 1904 in Flemington, Victoria, Australia, in what is now a suburb of Melbourne where the world famous Melbourne Cup horse race is run.
In the records, we next find Victor in England on New Year’s Day 1922 aged seventeen (having left the NCP at the end of 1921 – Editor), starting his training as a member of His Majesty’s Royal Naval Reserve. He spent his first months on board HMS Argus before transferring to HMS Venomous, a Modified W-class destroyer, in May 1922. At this time, he is noted as being ‘a good seaman for his age.’ UK RN lists track his time in the Navy until he was removed from the list on 15 April 1926, still holding the rank of Midshipman. Perhaps his lack of progress was a spur to find new pastures. He joined a company in England, most likely the Asiatic Petroleum Company, as a clerk which gave him an opportunity for adventure. Later that year, on 6 November 1926, he boarded the Japanese ship Fushimi Maru at London Docks headed for Shanghai on a trip scheduled to take 40 days.
He would have been in Shanghai for no more than two weeks when he took the field in his first, of more than eighty appearances playing rugby in Shanghai, on 1 January 1927 playing for the ‘Whites’ against the ‘Colours’. He occasionally turned out for his company team Asiatic Petroleum Company in corporate matches but never quite reached the heights of playing for the interport team playing in several ‘possibles’ teams in interport trials. He was a regular member of the SVC Machine Gunners team (who later changed their name to the Armoured Car Company). His last game in Shanghai was played on 3 March 1934 against a U.S. Fourth Marines rugby team.
Aside from his sporting exploits, there is no further information about Fretwell until a ship’s manifest shows him travelling 3rd class to Melbourne from Southampton, UK on board the Esperance Bay on 14 March 1931. At this time he listed his occupation as Merchant. The rugby records showed that he played no rugby in Shanghai from 20 December 1930 until 31 October 1931. His first furlough (a long holiday, often lasting a year after a period of working, in this case four years) had proven fruitful. While in Australia, his engagement was announced to Miss Phyllis Mary ‘Mollie’ Langford (born 18 Sep 1908, died 2006), the only daughter of Commander G. F. Langford of the Royal Australian Navy and Martha Alice Langford. Fretwell left Australia in June 1931 to return to Shanghai.
Wedding bells were a long time in ringing. Fretwell remained a bachelor in Shanghai for the next nine years! Eventually, on 21 April 1940 he was married by Dean Trivett at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Shanghai to the very patient Mollie Langford! She wore ‘a trained dress of white satin brocaded taffeta, made with a full tunic, square shoulders and long sleeves’. Victor’s best man was George Samuel Dunkley, a fellow rugby player and captain of the Shanghai team from 1926 to 1928. William ‘Billy’ Neil who played rugby for Shanghai from 1923 to 1937, acted as one of the ushers. The married couple honeymooned in South Africa.
Australian newspapers announced their first child’s birth, a daughter, on 21 August 1941 at Carinya Private Hospital, Chatswood, Sydney. Victor was still in Shanghai, a precarious place to be at that time, but at least he had less to fret about with mother and child in the relative safety of Australia. In December 1941 the Japanese invaded the international settlement of Shanghai. If Fretwell had been there he would have been stuck in Shanghai, eventually imprisoned, far away from his wife and new baby daughter, a fate experienced by many of his teammates in the following years. However it appears that he had left Shanghai before it was invaded. The London Gazette shows that he was commissioned on the Emergency List as a Second Lieutenant in the British Army on 21 September 1941.
Fretwell’s war time activity can be gleaned from a Special Operations Executive (SOE) file held in the National Archives in Kew, London. It offers tantalising glimpses of what appears to have been a remarkable and dangerous five years. One telegram in the file from 1945 sketches the military career of Fretwell. It refers to his time as a naval reserve cadet in the 1920s at Pangbourne, UK. It then states ‘With 204 mission. 14 months movement control CHITTAGONG [now in Bangladesh]. 11 months CHUNG KING [present day Chongqing] and speaks MADARIN (sic).’
Another document shows that he arrived in Kunming 14 July 1944 and was still there at the year’s end. His code name was BB227. Another document refers to being appointed to ‘Force 136’ with effect from 1 November 1944. Another undated document states that Fretwell ‘was second in command at KUNMING office until recently.’ It appears that this appointment lasted until 28 February 1946. The September 1946 London Gazette announced that Fretwell had relinquished his commission on 26 April 1946 and was granted the rank of Honorary Major.
These few oblique references suggest a fascinating story that, in the absence of other information can only be guessed at. Although relatively unknown, both Force 136 and Mission 204 have been the subject of numerous books. Force 136 was the cover name for a branch of the British World War Two organisation, the SOE. The organisation was established to encourage and supply resistance movements in enemy-occupied territory, and occasionally mount clandestine sabotage operations. It operated in the regions of the South-East Asian Theatre of World War II which were occupied by Japan from 1941 to 1945. The SOE was not tasked to operate inside China after 1943. However, one group, Mission 204, also known as Tulip Force, attempted to provide assistance to the Chinese Nationalist Army. Given the information above, and Fretwell’s long experience in China and his Mandarin speaking ability, it is likely that he was involved in these specific theatres.
An article published in a recent magazine marking the 70th anniversary of VJ day written by a Force 136 operative named John Stanfield, also a Captain, gives an insight into what life was like at this time. John wrote:
‘I did not enjoy Delhi. The town was hot and dirty and the work was boring. Luckily I had a friend in the Personnel Postings Office and she, knowing that I could speak Chinese, put my name forward to SOE; and as luck would have it, they happened to be looking for signals officers to serve in China. So very soon afterwards, I found myself posted (with the rank of captain) to M.E.9, a ‘school for spies’ in Northern India, [note: there is a reference to ME94 in Fretwell’s file] where agents and wireless operators of many nationalities were trained for secret work. In the weeks that followed I was given the code name BB669 [Fretwell’s code was BB227] and made ready to take up the job of ‘second in command’ of Force 136 China Signals.
At M.E.9 I learnt about ciphers and codes and how to use the various types of radio sets supplied to our agents behind enemy lines… The training was soon over and in the spring of 1944 I was despatched to China by air over the Himalayas to Kunming. Kunming was lovely when I arrived, and I can still picture the city and its beautiful lake surrounded by mountains. Our Force 136 office was 13 miles along the lake at Shi Shan under the Western Hills. There were about 15 British and Chinese signalmen living in an old house there. We worked to India and up to Chunking, relaying messages from our agents. This was a comfortable post, but it didn’t last long as I was soon ordered to move to our forward base in Kweilin (Guilin).’
Whatever Fretwell’s involvement, the sparse information available shows that he was a key protagonist in these relatively unknown theatres of war in South East Asia.
After the war, on 2 July 1946, another child, Ian William Langford Fretwell, was born in the Tonga Private Hospital, Roseville, Sydney. This would suggest that Fretwell was reunited with his wife in September 1945. A document in the PRO file dated 9 July 1945 suggests that Fretwall had been authorised a period of leave on completion of some urgent duties. At the time of the birth, Fretwell was noted as being in North China in Tsingtao (now called Qingdao). Another son followed two years later, this time born in China in Swatow [now called Shantou in South China] on 25 June 1948. (I assume that this was Alan Vause Fretwell who appeared on the 1972 electoral register living with his mother, see below.)
The next record for Fretwell shows him leaving London by boat bound for Freemantle, Australia on 9 June 1949, arriving on 5 July. The record indicates that China was still his place of permanent residence. The next glimpse of his life is in 1959 when, sadly, Victor and Phyllis filed for divorce. Thereafter the Australian electoral records document where they lived. In 1963 Victor is listed as living near Sydney at 6 Stafford Street, Double Bay, Warringah. His occupation was recorded as Secretary. Just after this, in 1965, Fretwell helped compile a catalogue for a Chinese Ceramics exhibition in August-September 1965 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales indicating that he had acquired an expert knowledge in this field. Four pieces from his collection were later auctioned at Sotheby’s in Melbourne in November 2006 realizing more than AUD13,000.
In 1968, Victor moved locally to Mosman Street, still a Secretary. In 1972, aged 68, he was living in Narrabeen, north of Sydney with no occupation listed, presumably retired. Also living at this house was a Dorothy ‘Dotty’ Violet Fretwell, I assume his second wife. Five years later Dorothy is still living at the address but there is no record of Victor being on the electoral records. Presumably by this time he had died. The last available electoral record in 1980 shows Dorothy was still living at the house.
As for his ex-wife Phyllis, in 1943 and 1949 she is listed as having home duties, living at 35 Dudley Avenue, Bradfield, Roseville in the suburbs of Sydney. Victor was not listed at this address or any other suggesting he was not in Australia. By 1954 she has moved locally to 18 Canberra Crescent, Bradfield, Lindfield and was still there in 1958 and 1963. In 1968, her son Ian William Langford, now aged 21 or 22 and of voting age is also listed as living at the residence. In 1972 mother and eldest son have been joined on the register by Alan Vause Fretwell, now aged 23 or 24. By 1977 both sons had moved out and in the last available electoral register in 1980, Phyliss was still living at Canberra Crescent.”
Copyright © Simon Drakeford 2017. All rights reserved.